History of Positive psychology


Historical overview of  Positive Psychology:

From the beginning of Psychology and especially after World War II, it was a science largely devoted to healing. It concentrated on repairing damage using a disease model of human functioning. This almost exclusive attention to pathology neglected the idea of a fulfilled individual and a thriving community, and it neglected the possibility that building strength is the most potent weapon in the arsenal of therapy.

The aim of positive psychology is to catalyze a change in psychology from preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also building the best qualities in life. 

Positive psychology does not rely on wishful thinking and self-deception; instead it tries to adapt what is best in the scientific method to the unique problems that human behavior presents in all its complexity.

Before World War II, psychology had three distinct missions: curing mental illness, making the lives of all people more productive and fulfilling, and identifying and nurturing high talent. In 1946, the Veterans Administration was founded, and thousands of psychologists found out that they could make a living treating mental illness. At that time the profession of clinical psychologist came into its own, and academics found out that they could get grants if their research was described as being about pathology.

This heavy focus solely on the negative aspect of mental health was criticized by a few psychologists. The rise in preoccupation with disorder and dysfunction did not contribute to the betterment of people in those times and held the notion that the individual is a “victim” of maladjustment. 

The major psychological  theories now undergird a new science of strength and resilience. No longer do the dominant theories view the individual as a passive vessel “responding” to “stimuli”; rather, individuals now are seen as decision makers, with choices, preferences, and the possibility of becoming masterful, efficacious, or, in malignant circumstances, helpless and hopeless.

Movement in Positive psychology

Positive Psychology gained momentum in the late 20th century, as a field of psychology focusing on ‘scientific study of well being and betterment of life’.

Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology, advocated for this branch in 1998 when he served as President of the American Psychological Society. The explicit goal was to further investigate human potential to counter the dominance of psychopathology and establish a science of human flourishing (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

The term “Positive Psychology” was coined by Abraham Maslow in his book “Motivation and Personality” in 1954. He argued that psychology’s preoccupation with disorder and dysfunction lacked an accurate understanding of human potential (Maslow, 1954).

William James, a physician and philosopher pursuing interests in psychology, was curious as to why some people overcame adversity and thrived, while others suffered from mental health problems. He argued that understanding subjective experience is key to the investigation of optimal human functioning.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s central contribution to positive psychology lies in his concept of flow, a state of complete absorption in an activity characterized by intense focus, energized creativity, and a sense of timelessness

Despite many efforts to instigate the concept of positive psychology since ancient times, it was only popularized during late 1990’s and the early 2000’s, through the collective efforts of psychologists like Martin Selligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

The field of positive psychology gave rise to many assessments and inventories, similar to that of other branches of psychology. One of the most widely known of such categories is the VIA i.e. Value In Action Inventory.

The VIA- IS (Values in Action Inventory of Strengths):

Known as “Values in Action Inventory” earlier, it is a comprehensive test with the purpose of identifying the strengths and capabilities of a person. The VIA Character Personality Assessment is a scientific instrument measuring our strengths, and it’s widely used in academic, corporate, and other settings (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). 

  • Contrary to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), whose purpose is to provide insight into the various disorders and dysfunctions, CSV (Character Strength and Virtues) acts as a guide towards identifying an individual’s “character strengths”, and helping them understand and apply these virtues for the betterment of their lives.

Important Events in Positive Psychology:

  • Ancient Greece (BCE): Philosophers like Aristotle lay the groundwork for positive psychology by exploring concepts like eudaimonia (well-being, flourishing), virtues, and the “good life.”
  • Eastern Traditions (Ancient): Mindfulness practices, a key concept in positive psychology, emerge in ancient Eastern traditions.
  • 1954: Abraham Maslow publishes “Motivation and Personality,”  uses the term “positive psychology” within the book.
  • 1961: Carl Rogers publishes “On Becoming a Person,”  emphasizing human potential and self-actualization.
  • 1998: Martin Seligman becomes president of the American Psychological Association (APA) and makes positive psychology the theme of his term. This is considered the formal birth of positive psychology as a distinct discipline. He considered as father of positive psychology. 
  • 2000: The first Positive Psychology Summit is held in Lincoln, Nebraska.
  • 2002: Tal Ben-Shahar’s “Positive Psychology” course becomes the most popular course ever offered at Harvard University.
  • 2005: Sonja Lyubomirsky publishes “The How of Happiness,” a popular book on positive psychology interventions.
  • 2008: The first doctoral program in positive psychology is established at Claremont Graduate University.
  • 2008: The Gallup- Healthways Well-Being Index launches in the United States, providing large-scale data on well-being.
  • 2009: The First World Congress on Positive Psychology is held in Philadelphia.
  • 2009: Barbara Fredrickson publishes her book “Positivity,” highlighting the 3:1 positivity ratio for optimal human functioning.
  • 2010: Tony Hsieh’s book “Delivering Happiness” becomes a bestseller, bringing positive psychology principles to business practices.

Positive psychology gave rise to many aspiring minds and also concepts who’s applications make it easier for an individual to not only  avoid psychophysical maladjustment but also for improving the quality of life. Some of them are as follows:

Key Concepts from Positive psychology:

1. Positive emotions:

  • It might appear that positive emotions are necessary to the field of positive psychology because they are the markers of optimal well being. The overall balance of people’s positive and negative emotions has been shown to contribute to their subjective well-being (Diener, Sandvik, & Pavot, 1991).
  • The link between positive emotions and activity engagement provides the tendency for individuals to experience mild positive affects frequently, without such a counterbalance, individuals most often would be unmotivated to engage with the environment.

2. Character strengths and virtues:

  • A person’s strengths and belief system can help combat mental illnesses as well as creating a broader and better perspective for positive emotions. 
  • Character strengths are the positive parts of our personality that make us feel authentic and engaged. They are a core and foundational part of who we are. Our strengths are linked to our development, wellbeing, and life satisfaction (Niemiec, 2013).

3. Flow:

  • Flow research and theory had their origin in a desire to understand this phenomenon of naturally motivated, or (autotelic) activity: activity rewarding in and of itself (auto = self, telos = goal). 
  • The conditions of flow included perceived challenges or opportunities for action that extend the existing skill, clear proximal goals and immediate feedback about the progress that is being made. When at flow, the individual operates at full capacity (cf. de Charms, 1968; Deci, 1975; White, 1959). The state is one of dynamic equilibrium. 

4. Optimism:

  • Optimism is the attitude that good things will happen and that people’s wishes or aims will ultimately be fulfilled.
  • Optimism has a positive effect on the psychological well-being of people with medical problems.
  • Another approach to optimism relies on the assumption that people’s expectations for the future derive from their view of the causes of events in the past. (Peterson & Seligman, 1984; Seligman, 1991)
  • Test your Optimism with psychological test- Click here

5. Resilience: 

  • Resilience is the ability to bounce back or to recover from extenuating circumstances. Resilience encompasses the ability to effectively cope with stress, maintain emotional stability, problem-solve, and utilize resources to navigate through challenging situations.
  • A person must develop resilience to better navigate through life and have a clear vision of the future, and to help function in and adapt to one’s surroundings. 

6. Meaning and purpose:

  • ‘Meaning’ of life can differ from person to person but it generally refers to the value we hold for our lives based on our notions,  beliefs and perceptions. Purpose on the other hand talks about the goals, aspirations and the direction in which we want our life to be heading. 
  • People who believe their lives have meaning are happier, have higher life satisfaction, are more engaged in their work, and have a better immune system.

7. Positive relationships: 

  • Relationship connection refers to people that can enhance their closeness with others, with whom they are already close to, closeness, meaning the mutual satisfaction and behavior that helps to contribute to one another’s goals and hopes in life.
  • Kelly et al. (1983) defines close relationship as “one of strong, frequent and diverse interdependence between two people that lasts over a considerable period of time”. 

8. Mindfulness:

  • What we consider beautiful, good, wickedness are products of our minds. Mindfulness is a flexible state of mind, an openness to novelty.
  • When we are mindful, we become sensitive to context and perspective, we are in the present. 
  • Being mindful guides our behavior rather than being governed by rules and routines.


The history of positive psychology is a testament to the evolution of psychology as a discipline, shifting its focus from pathology to well-being and human flourishing.

Since the late 20th century, positive psychology has grown from its roots to become a recognized field dedicated to understanding the factors that contribute to a fulfilling life. Through the established work of researchers like Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, positive psychology has showcased the importance of emotions, virtues, strength, and resilience in uplifting individual and societal well-being.


APA Dictionary of Psychology

Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. Harper & Row.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2019). Positive psychology: A personal history. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 15, 1-23. [doi: 10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-050718-095653)

Handbook of Positive  Psychology (R. Snyder, Shane J. Lopez)

One Reply to “History of Positive psychology”

  1. There is an interesting theory of Colin Bear why Positive Psychology started in the USA. He explains it in “American Happiness Propaganda” …


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